NTI Seminar: Impressions and Implications of the Iran Nuclear Archive

This post was written by Edwin Kindler, an intern working with NTI’s International Fuel Cycle Strategies program. Kindler is a graduate of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, where he received a Master of Arts degree in Non-Proliferation and International Security. He also holds a Bachelor of Science in Diplomacy and International Relations from Seton Hall University.

In April 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel unveiled what he claimed was a secret Iranian nuclear archive, obtained by Israeli intelligence operatives from a warehouse on the outskirts of Tehran. Allegedly, the Israeli team had managed to remove approximately 20 percent of the archive but felt confident that they had removed a representative sample, as many of the documents were overarching and offered a view into Iran’s entire nuclear program.

Nine months later, in January 2019, Dr. Matthew Bunn and Rolf Mowatt-Larssen led a team of nuclear and intelligence experts from Harvard University’s Belfer Center to Israel. They had been invited by the Israeli government to review the documents and electronic media seized during the raid on Iran’s secret warehouse, and they published a paper on their findings in May 2019.

Last month, the Nuclear Threat Initiative invited Bunn and Mowatt-Larssen to discuss their trip and paper, as well as implications of the archive for policy makers, at an NTI Seminar.

The Setup

Bunn and Mowatt-Larssen were clear up front about the limitations of their visit. Although the Harvard team was allowed to view several original documents, they brought no authentication experts with them, and most of the documents were copies. Additionally, the Belfer team did not include Farsi speakers or translation experts, so they were reading translated copies provided by their hosts. Though this could cause concern over the objectivity of the materials, team members agreed that many of the basic facts that they knew about the Iranian nuclear weapons program prior to their trip were reflected in the documents they saw, which gave the archive credibility. Lastly, they noted that the team included both skeptics and supporters of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement.

What Was New?

The Harvard team concluded that Iran’s technical progress was much further along than publicly understood. According to the archival documents, although Iran was still quite far from commercial-scale highly enriched uranium production, it had access to multiple foreign weapon designs and was assisted by several foreign advisors in ways beyond was publicly known. 

The team also found plans to begin construction of manufacturing facilities for uranium metal components in the archive. In addition, there was a much more focused effort to pursue a nuclear weapons program than the Belfer team previously had understood. 

In addition, there was a much more focused effort to pursue a nuclear weapons program than the Belfer team previously had understood. According to the archives, the program was known and directed at a high level, including by a council that (at the time of approval) included Hassan Rouhani, now president of Iran. It also had specific funding. Taken together, these factors indicated to the team that the program went beyond the 2011 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report that the Iranian nuclear-weapons related activities “took place under a structured programme.”

Future Concerns

According to the information reviewed by the team, the Iranian archive had been compiled and stored around the time of the completion of the Iran nuclear agreement. The team assessed this to mean that Iran may have greater capability to reconstitute its program than previously thought.

The IAEA was frequently mentioned in the archive, and documents relating to the IAEA were specifically color-coded. 

Among other things, these documents referred to potentially concerning scenarios, including alleged instances where Iran acquired foreknowledge of IAEA inspections prior to 2003.

One of the largest open questions is whether the documents provide a full picture of the Iranian nuclear weapons program. According to the Israelis, a second warehouse contained physical materials and equipment from the program. However, the Iranian government has denied that a second warehouse exists. When IAEA inspectors visited the alleged location, they did not find any equipment or materials, although there is evidence that some items were removed from that warehouse following Prime Minister Netanyahu’s announcement that Israel had documents from the archive.

At the NTI seminar, Bunn and Mowatt-Larssen emphasized that after reviewing the information they were given, their team was convinced that the archive was legitimate. However, they were also clear that the documents only referenced a limited period of time ending in the mid-2000s.

Finally, the team did not find that the new information in the documents should lead to any specific course of action. However, it raised several questions for policy makers going forward, including: How did Iran plan to keep its program secret as it progressed? Why did the program stop? And has the strategic intent of Iran changed since 2003, especially given the existence of this archive? 

For more on the Iran Nuclear Archive, read the commentary by NTI Co-Chair and CEO Ernest J. Moniz and NTI Board Member Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall.

June 6, 2019

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